Jessica and I have been going back and forth on what to do and not do after a friend’s break-up. We discuss! And we figured out how to be a good friend, so if you were wondering about that, we’ve got you covered.

Jen:  Okay, so how much sympathy should you expect from friends after difficult situations?

Jessica:  Well, first let’s clarify “difficult situations.” You have your sort of benign, like not getting a call back after a first-third date. Then you have your traumatic, like a death. Then you have your somewhere in between, like a break-up of a long-term relationship.

Jen:  Honestly, I think the bigger the situation, the harder it is to offer someone advice on it.
Jessica:  Agreed.
Jen:  Because, the odds of saying the wrong thing are too great.
Jessica: True. I would say that in almost any case, though, the best advice is no advice, unless someone comes to you specifically asking for it. That goes for any difficult situation, however severe.
Jen: True. But once someone does come to you, much though I would sometimes love to, you can’t just stare at them and run away before you inadvertently say something offensive. You’re obligated to say something. I used to try to say “I can’t even pretend to know what you’re going through” but that doesn’t work so well when everyone has been through a break-up.
Jessica: I think that a lot of the time, what we jump to do is find the perfect thing to say, when really it would be more helpful to just listen, or try to take cues from our friend about what they need. The problem with talking our faces off at someone who’s going through something tough is that then it feels like we care more about our own expertise than hearing about their pain.
Also, I have to say that I think “I can’t begin to imagine what you’re going through” is actually a productive thing to say.
Jen:  I imagine it depends a lot on the individual. I think I’ve had friends who found me saying “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” rather ludicrous, when obviously I’ve also been through break-ups and certainly could. And it can be difficult to read those cues and determine how much sympathy someone wants. I also think we expect different responses from our male vs. female friends. I think men can get away with saying “bummer. So, bowling?” more than women can.
Jessica: That’s a good point. You mean, men can say that to women and get away with it? Or men can say that to each other?
Jen: I think men can say that to women. And definitely to each other. Which, personally, I think can be a better response because at least you’re not sitting around dwelling on the sadness. I mean, not the bowling part, I hate bowling, but the emphasis on moving forward rather than dwelling on it. I feel there are some friends, not all, but some, who don’t want to offer advice or support so much as they just want to be swept up in some drama, and I find that very disconcerting.
Jessica:  And that kind of brings us back to our original question of what’s expected of friends, and what we want our friends to do — and not do. Obviously you can’t intuit that someone wants to go bowling — for instance, I would be probably be more inclined to try to get a friend to sit around and talk then to suggest bowling (or, you know, tennis…)
Jen:  And I have a really excellent backhand as a result of any and all childhood sadnesses.
Jessica: …so in helping a friend through something tough, you wind up walking a fine line of being available for them while not assuming that they want to cope the same way you would want to cope…and that can be difficult to navigate.
Jen:  But how can you know that? Do you think the best way is to just say “what do you feel like doing?”
Jessica: I think so.
Jen: That’s probably a pretty good call.
Jessica: I mean, to go back to your point about how long you can sit there and stare at someone before you say something offensive…I think that it’s entirely possible that eventually, you will say something offensive, and the best you can hope for is that your friend will let you know that that’s not what she needs to hear. But “what do you feel like doing” opens the door for whatever would be the most helpful for them…bowling, drinks, talking, staring at the wall and crying…and that way you don’t have to guess.
Jen:  I think this is a plan. Okay. We can go into the world and be sympathetic now. Good talk!
Jessica: Have we just solved the world’s problem of how to be a good friend? We’re awesome.
Jen:  Yes.